Bolivian Salt Flats Tour
Day 97 - Salt flat tour day 1
We battled through the dog-crowded rubbish bags on the street in the early morning to join our tour group at the office - we were paired with a young Belgian couple (doctors we later discovered! We were in safe hands!), and between the four of us we spoke barely a word of Spanish, about as much English as our guide, Nelson, spoke, but we were assured by the company he would speak… very… slowly… and we would be able to understand - Hmm! Our bags were loaded on top of our jeep and we set off into the Bolivian Desert, driving across train tracks and along dusty dirt roads out West from Tupiza, following the line of the Argentinian border. Today was the longest drive, about 10 hours in total, with various stops along the way to view the scenery. Nelson offered to connect our phones to the bluetooth sound system so we could play our own music but no one could get their phones to connect, so Nelson played his own playlist ranging from George Michael to Maclemore to the Game of Thrones theme tune to some Belgian classics too - everything a group of Gringos might enjoy! We saw some mad rock formations which we believe were caused by the movement of tectonic plates, some cool Llamas which I insisted Chris got out the jeep to take photos of (he nearly got blown away, and sulked about it afterwards), and stopped for a decent lunch of lentil stew, rice and salad with a big bottle of coke (we had decided to tick the ‘vegetarian’ box again, as we’re trying it on for size ready for some serious veggie action on our return home). After Lunch we drove to Ciudad del Encanto, consisting of big sandy mountainous peaks in the desert at around 4000m altitude. We ascertained that their formation had something to go with ‘water’, and promised ourselves we would google the rest on return (later another tour group we joined up with who had an english speaking guide confirmed it’s a combination of ‘wind and rain’). We continued our drive through sandy desert to rio San Pablo de Lipez where we took some photos of the Bolivian andes, then drove through San Antonio de Lipez at 4200m and stopped at Pablo Fantasma, to see some ruins of an old mining town which were around 700 years old from the Colonial era where the mining was done by slaves - there was the start of a mine still open that you could walk into - it was incredibly tight and steep and pretty terrifying! On top of the ruins we spotted some strange creatures that looked like a rabbit crossed with a chinchilla - our guide said it is called a ‘Viscacha’. We also saw an ostrich! On we drove (god it was long), past Laguna amarilla which is 4855m above sea level… And frozen, drove for a while longer, through a dusty little town called Quetena Chico which was bigger than other towns we have driven through but there was not much going on except for a state of the art 4g football pitch. We eventually arrived at our desert digs in the next town, Quetena Grande, it was absolutely freezing! We huddled around a small log burner and ate an endless pile of crackers and biscuits with cups of tea and hot chocolate whilst we waited for our dinner (our chef and all supplies were also travelling with us, and had to set up kitchen at each accommodation. We waited for about 1.5 hours (we are now quite familiar with ‘Bolivian time’) and had veggie soup followed by omelette with mashed potato, and were in bed in our sleeping bags and under 5 layers of blankets by 8.30!
Day 98 - Salt flat tour day 2
We woke at 6.30am from a difficult night of struggling to breathe whilst sleeping at 4200m above sea level! Every time I turned over I would wake up gasping for breath and my heart would be racing - we are looking forward to being able to breathe again. But first we’re going higher! Breakfast for me was the usual bread with jam, but Chris chose to dunk pieces of apple in a pot of dulce de leche - Bolivians love sugar and maybe that’s the way to handle the altitude? We set off and first stop was a llama farm for more furry photos, then we stopped off at a viewpoint for Laguna Hedionda which is a big frozen lake known as the ‘stinky lake’ for its sulphuric smell. Then we drove to Laguna Kollpa, another big smelly frozen lake which had sodium paths in it which we walked down. Today was absolutely freezing and wind chill factor of minus a million. We weren’t sure if we were managing to take any good photos because it was hard to open our eyes whilst out there! A few minutes further drive got us to a viewpoint of salar de chalviri, a mini salt flat. Again Chris braved it outside for a photo, battling against huge freezing gusts of winds blowing sand 20m into the air - this was the coldest we’d ever felt, now at around 4400m. We drove past the Aguas Termales (hot springs), which we would be stopping at on the way back - the idea of soaking in hot water was lush, but the idea of getting out again was pretty daunting! We stopped at some random rock formations in the desert, Desieeto de Dali, which turned out to be rocks spewed out from the volcano! The landscape was beginning to look like Mars, then we arrived at Laguna Blanca, a big white frozen lake. It looked similar to what we've seen before but we then breached a hill and Laguna Verde came into view framed by volcan licancabur - Absolutely stunning! This was a bright blue Laguna, due to abundance of arsenic and other minerals - again it was a quick stop for photos before we froze to death! We battled back to the Agua termales through mini sandstorms, and then disaster strikes! A flat tyre whilst driving along a completely exposed road with strong icy winds and sandstorms! The men got out to deal with it, leaving the delicate ladies to sit in the warm thank god! Our driver Nelson got to work changing the tyre, there wasn't actually much to help with so Chris tried to create a wind break, and generally stood around getting cold. 20 minutes later we were back on the road.
We arrived back at the hot springs. A quick change and a chilly saunter to the pools and we were in 40 degrees of lushness! After 20 mins it was time to brave the run to the changing rooms and then upto the cafe for lunch… for more egg based vegetarian food.
In the afternoon we were reminded of our lunch when we arrived at some eggy sulphurous geisers. Nelson warned us about getting too close “mucho caliente” he said. We hopped out briefly and took some photos, but it was still very cold and windy so we could only bare it for a few minutes.
We drove for an hour or so and arrived at Laguna Colorada (the red lagoon!), full of flamingos, llamas and vicunas! Absolutely breathtaking views, and not just because the wind was blowing us around!
Tonights hostel was nice, definitely an upgrade from night one. They offered hot showers, which turned out to be not true but luckily it was someone else in our group who found it out the hard way! A basic dinner of soup and then egg (ugh! More egg!) and chips complemented by some lovely Bolivian vino tinto, then bed by 830!
Day 99 - Salt flat tour day 3
It was a later start today, breakfast of pancakes at 8 (with more dulche de leche) and ready to hit the dusty road at 9. First we drove to Copa del Mundo, a big rock that looks like a football trophy - Obligatory photos and parkour films. Then a very short drive to some more rock formations called Italia perdida. One rock looks like a heart, or lungs, or wings… Jess and I quickly jumped out the car for some more photos before we continued to, what I reckon will be, more rocks (via a drive by of Laguna vinto! Another frozen lake). Yes, next more rocks and also Laguna negra, a black frozen lagoon! A quick cold 15 minute walk then back into the car and into canyon anaconda, where Chris was the only one who could able to get out of the jeep to take photos. We had a ‘picnic lunch’ which was thankfully indoors, and didn’t involve egg yay! In the afternoon we were told we’d be stopping in a village for some souvenir shopping and beer tasting - the reality was a small grocery shop where you could buy some different types of beer like Coca and Quinoa, and then we stood around in the shop drinking them and bobbing around to the music played on massive speakers! Outside a sandstorm was getting into full swing, and by the time we left it was absolutely raging. The visibility was getting increasingly worse and Nelson had to stop and wisely pulled off to the side of the 'road' to avoid any potential car crashes. We waited for a minute or two and then tried to head back onto the track, but the wheels were spinning in the sand which had built up into piles around us. Poor Nelson tried to free the wheels with no luck, we were truly wedged in! We made jokes in the jeep to hide the mild panic, but then luckily another jeep passed by and stopped to tow us backwards onto the track. A little tow out of danger and we're on our way again, the storm is just as bad and Nelson does excellently for the next 45 minutes to get us safely to our salt hotel! A quick unpack and a lovely hot shower later we're ready for tea, hot chocolate, crackers and biscuits.
A delicious dinner of vegetable soup and vegetable lasagne and some vino tinto was followed by a couple games of triminoes with the Dutch group from the other jeep, before we showed off our star gazing skills and showed them the southern cross, lama eyes, jupiter and the big red giant! We were given the one single bed to share in a small room with no window, which at least meant we were cosy for another freeeezing night in the Bolivian outback.
Day 100 - Salt flat tour day 4 - Uyuni.
We woke at 530am to leave at 6am in order to catch the sunrise at an island in the salt flats. The views across the salt flats as the sun rose were amazing and well worth all the freezing nights and early starts we’d endured. We had an outside picnic breakfast (must be nearing minus 10), but the views were making up for it! Then an hour drive along the salt flats goggling at the sheer whiteness and flatness of it all, until Nelson pulls off the faint road tracks and stops the car - time for crazy photos! See below! Our Belgian mates were excellent photographers and we managed to get some good shots, despite the freezing temperatures (some involved lying on the ground, and of course Chris insisted on taking his clothes off at one point - mad man!) We then drove onto an old hostel in the middle of the salt flats where they now host some sort of motor race called the Dakar Potosi. It's no longer in use but there are a load of flags outside, not sure what flags are for but there didn't seem to be a union jack in sight! We finished our tour at the ‘train cemetery’ just outside Uyuni, where again only Chris could face leaving the jeep to take photos! After 4 days of extreme cold we were ready to chill out in a Bolivian ‘pub’ and wait for our night bus, and also sampled ‘Bolivia’s best pizza’ in a local restaurant which actually lived up to its reputation! Night-bus-ready (i.e. having not consumed liquids for 3 hours before - this one had no toilet on board!) we settled in for a rough ride on seats which did not fully recline, and sure enough it was our worst night bus in South America.